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Thousands occupy Thai PM’s offices in protest

Thousands of anti-government demonstrators occupied the Thai prime minister's office compound on Tuesday in the latest protest aimed at deposing him.
Image: Anti-government protesters break barricades during their entry into Government House in Bangkok, Thailand
Anti-government protesters surge through barricades as they storm Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, on Tuesday.Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of anti-government demonstrators occupied the Thai prime minister's office compound on Tuesday and tens of thousands rallied outside in the latest protest aimed at deposing a prime minister they accuse of being too closely tied to his disgraced predecessor.

The People's Alliance for Democracy, which is aligned with conservative factions of the monarchy and the military, said the protests and the seizure of a state-run television station by a mob of their masked security enforcers were a "final showdown" in its efforts to oust the government.

The group has been protesting across the capital, Bangkok, since May to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. They contend he is a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup after being accused of corruption and is living in self-imposed exile in England.

Protesters scaled fences to gain entry to Samak's compound, called Government House, and they encamped in a huge garden outside the prime minister's office. The protesters remained peaceful and did not try to enter any government buildings.

Riot police clear away barricades
Their grip appeared uncertain, however, when about 500 riot police cleared away makeshift barricades and forced open a gate to enter the compound shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday morning.

About 500 helmeted officers carrying shields and batons clashed briefly with the protesters, but fighting ceased a few minutes after police established themselves inside the compound. They made no immediate effort to force the protesters out, and appeared to be holding talks with their leaders, though details were unavailable.

Up to 30,000 protested outside four government ministries and Government House during the day, deputy police spokesman Maj. Gen. Surapol Tuanthong said.

Some carried placards that said: "The Evil Government, Get out Now." It had a photo of Samak with a red 'X' through it. Police monitored the rallies but did not intervene.

"The people's army is victorious over the government," protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul told protesters from a stage assembled inside the Government House compound. "We are now in Government House and won't move until the government resigns."

Most of the protesters wore yellow shirts, which are a mark of devotion to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the revered constitutional monarch.

Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the army chief, reassured the public Tuesday that the military was not planning another coup, and would not get involved in politics.

18 coups since 1932
Thailand has had 18 coups since the first ousted the absolute monarchy in 1932.

After keeping silent for most of the day, Samak said the government would not use force to eject the protesters, but was preparing legal action against them. He said he had no intention of resigning.

He accused the protesters of trying to dare the authorities to stop them.

"They want bloodshed in the country. They want the military to come out and do the coup again," he said.

Some analysts agreed that the alliance was trying to provoke a violent crackdown from the government, with the goal of winning public sympathy and perhaps compelling the army to step in to restore order. The need to avoid violence was one of the reasons given by the military for the 2006 coup.

"I still cannot see an easy end to the turbulence," Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian from Bangkok's Thammasat University, said. "It might take days or months until everything reaches the point where violence erupts."

Samak said he was optimistic he could end the siege in a day. He said authorities would surround the protesters encamped at his office, letting people leave but not allowing any new protesters to enter.

"They need food. It's not torture but they must come out," he said at a news conference with foreign journalists.

Picnic dinners with families
Still, thousands stayed Tuesday night, which started with a relaxed, even festive, air. Many enjoyed picnic dinners with their families outside the building that houses the prime minister's offices.

Authorities had set a 6 p.m. Tuesday deadline for protesters to leave. But police said that was announced simply to allow authorities to launch legal action against the occupiers if they overstayed.

The day began with a violent, pre-dawn raid by about 80 masked alliance members on the main studios of the government-run National Broadcasting Services of Thailand, known as NBT. The protesters claim the station is a government mouthpiece.

NBT footage of the incursion showed the attackers, armed with clubs and iron rods, herding staff out of the building and smashing property.

The invaders prevented the station from broadcasting for about an hour, after which police officers arrested them. Samak said police were holding them pending charges.

Local television news footage later showed police displaying knives and at least one gun that they said the attackers carried.

TV station forced off the air
A crowd of protesters later took over the TV station for a second time, pushing down a gate and rushing past police to occupy the offices. The station was again forced off the air, but resumed broadcasting within an hour from another location.

No one was arrested for the second raid, and the protesters withdrew from the building in the evening.

The Thai Journalists Association protested the station's seizure, describing it as a threat to press freedom.

The state Thai News Agency, citing local police, reported that provincial branches of the alliance had blocked roads leading to the capital from the south, north and northeast. Police diverted traffic and were not reported to have made any arrests.

Thaksin and his wife skipped bail earlier this month with a string of corruption charges pending against them. The former leader has said he will never get a fair trial in his homeland.

Before Thaksin's ouster, the People's Alliance for Democracy led months of demonstrations alleging he was corrupt and had abused his power.

The alliance has accused Samak of trying to amend the constitution to help Thaksin avoid conviction on the corruption charges. They also accuse Samak's government of failing to aggressively prosecute cases against Thaksin and refusing calls to extradite him from Britain to face justice.

It has also proposed replacing Thailand's electoral democracy with a system that would be dominated by appointees from the bureaucracy and the military, on the grounds that the rural majority is not sophisticated enough to choose good public servants.